The match was in his grasp. Leading 6-7 6-4 5-1, Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka stepped to the line one point away from victory. His opponent, Felix Auger-Aliassime, was down amongst the dead men. Until he wasn’t. The 18-year-old, with an explosively powerful game and most likely an exceedingly bright future in the sport, saved the match point. He broke back and, when Nishioka forced two more match points with Auger-Aliassime serving to stay in the match, he saved them too.
The crowd, who had fallen quiet over much of the past hour as Auger-Aliassime’s game had fallen apart, found their voices again as quickly as their man found his game. Lending their support to the Canadian, they fired him back into the contest. Auger-Aliassime held and Nishioka’s once unassailable lead was looking increasingly slender. The Japanese served for the match again. He was broken again. Auger-Aliassime was on the charge and Nishioka’s challenge seemed to be faltering.
A moment later and it was 5-5. Nishioka’s lead had evaporated and his chances in the match seemed to have gone with it. Auger-Aliassime was, after all, the future star. At 6’4”, he towered over the diminutive Nishioka, and he had the power to match. It looked set to be his story, a tale to be told years later as he held a big title aloft, promise fulfilled, about his breakout moment, when the world realised just how good he was going to be.
But Nishioka hadn’t read that script. He wanted more than to be an obstacle overcome by another on their road to glory. His lead may have gone, but the match was still alive. Gathering himself, shaking off the disappointment of the last half an hour, he prepared to start again. Somehow, he held serve, stopping the rot at four games and guaranteeing himself at least a tiebreak. In doing so, he threw down another challenge to the younger man.
Auger-Aliassime answered it, holding his own serve, despite a few nervous moments, and sending the match into a tiebreak shoot out. The odds still seemed to favour him. He had played ten tiebreaks at tour-level and won eight of them and whilst his momentum may have been checked, it certainly had not been stopped. His youth showed itself in a missed overhead followed by a backhand error, but no matter, he quickly righted the ship and claimed the lead in the tiebreak.
He was close now. Close to the fourth round, the big-time. Indeed, he would even have beaten the greats of the game to the last 16, with the likes of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer all still waiting in the wings ahead of their own third-round matches. For a moment, then, the limelight would have been his and his alone, a teenage star making waves on the biggest stage, propelled onwards by a fearless brand of attacking tennis, carrying him onward to ever greater glories.
But fearlessness is not always prudent. The courage of youth does not always trump the hard-won lessons of experience. At 5-4, Auger-Aliassime was two points away with two serves to come. He lost both points, sending flailing forehands far wide of the mark. And as quickly as his chance had come, it was lost, recklessly, needlessly squandered. And Nishioka, who had doggedly stayed with his man, waiting patiently for the storm of winners to abate, was there to punish him for it.
He did just that, pushing Auger-Aliassime deep behind the baseline and drawing another error from the racquet of the Canadian. On this day, at least, it was to be his story, his moment. Auger-Aliassime, to his great credit, was gracious in defeat, though it must have been a bitter pill to swallow. His day will surely come, but Nishioka’s is here now. The fourth round in the desert awaits, 90 precious ranking points and $91,000 in prize money already secured.
He will face another teenager there, Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, who is crafting a memorable tale of his own after battling through to the last 16 as a lucky loser. And so this story, of defiance and drama in the desert, will be put to one side. Tennis affords its competitors little time to dwell on their successes. How can it when the prizes still to be won glitter so invitingly? But it will not be forgotten. And now, nor will Nishioka.
Embed from Getty Images